A Yearning for the World That Breonna Deserved

If we are well-acquainted, I trust that you know something about the heart from which these words come. If, on the other hand, our association is you may be tempted to assume the worst about my motives or intentions. I pray that you will resist that temptation.

(Artwork: “Breonna Taylor” by Alice X. Zhang)

If we are well-acquainted, then I trust that you know something about the heart from which these words come. If, on the other hand, our association has not been nurtured by time, you may be tempted to assume the worst about my motives or intentions. I pray that the tone and content of my words might inspire you to resist that temptation.

I am perpetually grateful and prayerful for those law enforcement officers whose character breeds integrity, whose foundational commitment is to the protection of all people, and whose vision for justice inspires within them a willingness to be accountable to the very citizenry they serve and defend. The safety of our communities, in so many ways, depends upon the everyday work of such noble agents of law enforcement. I laud, honor, and celebrate the many officers (some of whom I have known personally) whose virtuousness and courage my words describe. Always have. Always will.

And yet, the tragic police shooting death of an unarmed Breonna Tayor in her apartment on March 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky and the perplexing ruling of a grand jury on September 23, 2020 (specifically, the ruling that no officers involved in the shooting would be directly charged in her death) indicate that something is woefully and systemically distorted.

I readily acknowledge that I am not an expert in the pertinent legal particulars surrounding the case. Nor am I privy to all of the details of the shooting to which the grand jury would have had access.

But I do know that five of the many bullets that police fired into Breonna Taylor’s apartment on March 13 (in response to a single shot fired by her boyfriend, the precise details of which are unclear) entered her body and ended her life. Her violent, unnecessary death and the grand jury’s subsequent ruling leave a host of troubling questions hanging in the air that America currently breathes.

Where will accountability be found in the shooting death of an unarmed 26-year-old hospital worker?

When does police response cross the important line that separates justification from recklessness—or that separates self-defense from some form of manslaughter? And when will the discernment of such line-crossing apply to Breonna Taylor and not only her neighbors?

When does justice for a life demand a far more extensive pursuit than a grand jury can render?

What reforms are necessary in the law (Better search warrants? Better communicational processes and suspect-tracking? Better training and accountability?) to ensure the prevention of similar tragedies and aftermaths?

And who are the voices at every level of leadership that will refuse to see the death of Breonna Taylor as anything less than a clarion call for a justice not yet realized?

I pray that we will not back away from these questions, settling for either a protective silence that guards our comfort or, worse, a callous indifference that diminishes our moral sensibilities.

Please hear me. I loudly decry any violence committed in the name of protest, including the ugly and inexcusable violence that led to the shooting of Louisville police officers last evening. Such violence is an assault on the very spirit of justice that all authentic protest pursues, and it cannot be either condoned or ignored. “Hate multiplies hate,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “violence multiplies violence…in a descending spiral of destruction.” 

At the same time, I pray fervently that we will not fixate so myopically on the deplorable violence of some protestors that we fail to bring a morally-necessary outrage to the stark racial injustices and inequities that inspire protestation in the first place.

Please hear me. I am aware of the concerns of those in our communities and congregations who are either offended or unsettled by the nomenclature of “white privilege” and “systemic racism.”

At the same time, I pray urgently that we will not allow our resentment over certain concepts either to harden our hearts to the realities that those concepts illuminate or to blind us to the fact that Breonna Taylor, as a citizen of color, experienced this world and this nation’s legal system very differently than a white citizen would.

Please hear me. I join many of you in experiencing both weariness and discouragement in the work of dismantling racism in all of its expressions.

At the same time, I pray desperately that whatever weariness we might experience in the work of dismantling racism might serve only to deepen our sensitivity to the far more profound weariness of those who are confronted every single day with unfair presuppositions and dehumanizing mistreatment because of their race.

If, at any point in this post, I have come across as condescending or self-righteous, please forgive me. Perhaps I have said too much or communicated what I have said wrongly or irresponsibly. Or perhaps I have not said enough.

To be honest, I simply needed to write…something—if only to attach some words to the inarticulate cries of my heart. 

They are cries for a justice not yet realized.

They are cries for Breonna and the absence of the world she deserved.

They are cries for the consistent mattering of black and brown lives, so that the sacred worth of all lives might be rightly discerned and honored.

A Prayer at the Beginning of a Strange and Difficult New School Year

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God of the Ages, who cares deeply about what transpires in both the sanctuary and the classroom; at both the dinner table and the school cafeteria; in both the comforts of home and the hallways of our educational institutions; through both in-person and virtual learning:

We cry out to you on behalf of students in these pandemic-laden days. Some of these students are very young, heading off for their first day of kindergarten. Some are a bit older, enrolled in elementary school or middle school or high school. Others are headed off to college, or perhaps into a new season of graduate study. Others are entering the workforce in order to begin a journey of lifelong learning. All of them are attempting to navigate the rhythms and demands of both in-person and online education, all the while cultivating a patience and a discipline that the realities of COVID-19 require.

Open the minds of the students, that they might be available to their teachers and receptive to meaningful learning, by whatever methodology it takes place. Open their hearts, that they might be compassionately attentive to the other people whose lives intersect with theirs in the journey of their education. Even now, O God, the faces of many different students are appearing in our prayerful reflection. Grant that, as the students learn about mathematics and science and literature and history and language and a host of other subjects, they might also learn a deeper reverence for the One in whom all knowledge is ultimately to be found.

We cry out to you on behalf of teachers, all of whom are working creatively and diligently to create environments that are safe for the students and conducive to their learning.  Strengthen them in their labor. Energize them in their task. Guard them against any cynicism that would make a classroom into a cold and unpleasant place. Deepen their love, not only for their subject matter, but also for the ones they teach. By the power of your Holy Spirit, equip these teachers to be the instruments of compassionate tutelage that you are calling them to be, so that their commitment to their students might find full expression, both in physical classrooms and virtual ones. Bless them with your comfort and encouragement as they balance their concerns for their own safety with their devotion to their students, online and in-person.

We cry out to you on behalf of school administrators and staff. College presidents, deans, financial officers, planners, and registrars. Superintendents, principals, vice-principals, and guidance counselors. Nurses, school psychologists, and behavioral counselors. Administrative assistants, receptionists, custodial staff, security officers, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. These are the souls whose sacred responsibility it is to generate a safe and nurturing environment in which holistic learning might take place. Enable them to enter this season with courage and vision, since none of them have experience in doing their work during a pandemic. Bless them with an ever-deepening awareness of their purpose, and grant to them the strength to fulfill it.

We cry out to you on behalf of families, many of which are struggling in painful ways during this season of transition. Some parents are finding it particularly difficult to let their children go as they head off to school in this often-frightening world. Some children and youth are burdened by a sense of insecurity as they enter into a new season of life and learning. Other families are dealing with the heavy emotional weight of having to rearrange schedules and routines in order to accommodate their child’s (or their children’s) online learning. Weave the different threads of these family circumstances into the rich and vibrant tapestry of your grace, so that the members of these families might be drawn closer to one another and closer to you.

Build a protective fortress, O God, around our schools and our institutions of higher learning and both the physical and virtual classrooms that they offer. Guard them against violence, hatred, bullying, and hurtful manipulation. Make every classroom and office into a sanctuary for your presence, so that, through our system of education, many will be led to recognize that a reverence for you is the beginning of all wisdom. We pray this prayer out of a variety of faith traditions. Personally, I pray it in the name of Jesus, whose transforming grace is the curriculum by which his followers live, move, and find their being. Amen.

We Are Better Than This: The Perils of Weaponized Grief

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Both the inadequacy of my thinking and the limitations of my discernment have been regularly revealed over the course of my life. Please know that I am painfully aware of both as I write what I am about to write. I offer these words, not as one laboring under the delusion of absolute rightness, but as an openhearted seeker attempting to give voice to a deep internal struggle that will not go away.

My soul is sad. The collective resentment in our nation has inspired people in recent days to weaponize one grief against another, thereby distorting the profundity of both. Insufficient and caustic interpretations of current events and recent tragedies are producing bitterness more than they are illuminating truth.

Allow me to explain what I am describing.

The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (all of whom are representative of a much longer list of black and brown people) have painfully awakened our nation to racial injustice and inequity that have been too frequently ignored or tolerated. Their deaths, tragic and terrible, bear witness to what I have come to understand all too well from personal experience—that people of color experience a very different world than I do as a white male. This difference finds expression in law enforcement statistics and documented social narratives. It reveals itself through observed examples of undervaluation and mistreatment. It can be heard in the cavalier articulation of racial slurs, the perpetuation of institutionalized presuppositions, and an exaggeratedly fierce defense of certain flags, mascots, and statues. It hides in patterns, rhythms, and ideas that have become part of the sociological air that we breathe.

The “difference” that I am describing inspires within me, not a sense of guilt, but a heightened attentiveness; not an apology for being white, but a recognition that being white grants to me societal advantages that people of color are not automatically granted.

At the heart of the cry “black lives matter”—a cry that resonates with particular clarity in the aftermath of the killings referenced above—is the conviction that the struggle for racial justice and equity must be taken seriously and embraced in order for all lives to be valued equally. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are heartbreaking affronts to our moral sensibilities. Their voices call to our hearts, beckoning us to affirm the sacred worth of black and brown lives and bodies in a world in which they are too often treated as though they do not matter.

The appalling shooting death of 5-year-old Cannon Hinnant at the hands of a 25-year-old black neighbor in Wilson, North Carolina is another recent tragedy, expansive in its scope. A precious young life senselessly lost. A family devastated. A community undone. Another act of unthinkable violence. Grief beyond words. A little boy denied the journey into youth and adulthood that he should have enjoyed. His killer, within a day, was apprehended, arrested, and charged with first degree murder.

The intersection of these profound grief experiences is precisely where things become complicated and troubling. Perhaps that fact should come as no surprise to us. Our stewardship over our grief, after all, is one of the most significant and complex forms of stewardship that we will ever practice. The content of that stewardship will either deepen a heart or harden a heart.

The burden in my spirit at present is that a portion of the nation is practicing what I am experiencing as a truncated or malformed grief stewardship. This malformation is taking the form of an all-too-familiar demonization of the media—as in, “Why has the media been so ‘deafeningly silent’ about Cannon Hinnant’s murder in comparison to the coverage of George Floyd?” Such language, of course, fueled by politicized fervor, carries with it an accusation against either the media’s perceived irresponsibility or assumed agenda or both. The consequences of this accusation are intensified resentment and more clearly defined battle lines.

The malformation also takes the form of a race-based subjugation of one grief narrative to another: “You say that black lives matter? I say that Cannon’s life matters! You say speak THEIR names? I say speak Cannon’s name!” The end result is that two experiences of grief are positioned unfairly and hurtfully against one another, thereby obscuring the realities that both experiences illuminate.

I believe that we are better than this. We are collectively wiser and more careful in our thinking than this. We are more compassionate and gracious than this.

When we pit the death of Cannon Hinnant against the death of George Floyd (irrespective of how noble we believe our intentions to be) and utilize the comparison a means by which to castigate the media, we run the risk of reducing the murder of a young boy to an instrument of demonization. Beyond this, when we utilize Cannon’s death as an opportunity to express resentment over the cultural energy that is currently being devoted to the work of ensuring racial justice, we unnecessarily kneel on the neck of the mattering of black lives.

It does not have to be this way. We can allow Ahmaud Arbery’s story be its own story. And Breonna Taylor’s. And George Floyd’s. And Cannon Hinnant’s.

For these multiple urgencies to be rightly honored, however, moral people have to resist the temptation to settle for insufficient and denunciatory interpretations that only serve, in the long run, to gaslight and obscure.

I believe that we are better than this. We have to be.

A Blind Man, COVID-19, and the Good Heart of God

The Healing of the Man born Blind. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION. Author: Russian icon.

This weekend, many of my preacher friends (in their online and technologically reconfigured worship experiences) will be focusing on a pivotal moment in John’s gospel (John 9:1-41).

Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man—blind from birth, in fact. The disciples ask a question that emerges from their long-established and deeply-held way of looking at the world:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question reveals a starkly equational way of looking at things, and the equation goes like this: If people experience hardship or suffering (like blindness; or cancer; or Alzheimer’s disease; or MS; or natural disasters; or COVID-19), it must be the result of God’s punishment for some transgression. In this equation, the man’s blindness is not merely the result of malfunctioning eyes. It is an existential penalty assigned by God to a sinner. Likewise, according to the equation, something like COVID-19 becomes the blunt instrument of a God with a substantial ax to grind.

The disciples were not halfwits, by the way. They were espousers of a theological system that was undergirded by a long and painful history. (Check out the chapters of the Old Testament book of Job if you need evidence of that history.) In this worldview, suffering has to have an initiator, a causal agent. And that causal agent is none other than our sovereign God, orchestrating suffering as a means of divine punishment for the sins of the past and present. The disciples, in this moment of Scripture, are not asking IF the man’s blindness is a punishment. They are simply trying to identify the guilty party:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is something beyond what the disciples are prepared to envision or receive in the moment. It is the kind of disruptive response that begins to alter the trajectory of the church’s understanding of the world and its suffering:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What?! What are you saying, Jesus?! Are you asking us to believe that human suffering is something other than divine punishment? Are you suggesting that this man’s blindness—or this woman’s cancer; or this child’s heart condition; or this world’s coronavirus—is something other than the work of a retributive deity? Are you really putting before us the idea that our suffering is not a penalty that God initiates but rather a brokenness that God willingly engages and eagerly redeems?

Jesus eventually heals the blind man, to be sure. But I do not believe that the blind man’s healing is the most profound miracle in this story. Rather, I believe that the most profound miracle is Jesus’ transformation of the disciples’ inadequate system of thought. Jesus incarnates a new worldview in their very presence—a worldview in which blindness and cancer and coronavirus and tornadoes and hurricanes can be looked upon, not as God’s means of punishment, but as the groaning of a world that yearns for a restoration not yet realized. In such moments of suffering, God is not the orchestrator of our hardship but its redeemer—not a punisher with questionable aim, but a compassionate Parent who vulnerably walks alongside a hurting human family, all the while providing the kind of healing and sustenance that bear witness to the goodness of the Divine Heart.

My sense is that people are asking deep and important theological questions about God’s relationship to COVID-19 (whether they realize it or not). I hope that the church will respond to those questions, not with manufactured platitudes and inadequate equations, but with the assurance of God’s good and gracious heart—a heart that heals suffering instead of causing it; a heart that will not rest until every portion of suffering finds its redemption.

Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)

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Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.

Don’t GO Home, But BE at Home: A Reflection On Women In Ministry

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(Artwork: “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”—from Japan, unknown artist)

It was a significant moment and not in a good way.

On October 18, as part of a panel discussion at a “Truth Matters Conference” in Sun Valley, California, author and pastor John MacArthur was asked to share (in just a couple of words) his thoughts about author and preacher Beth Moore. MacArthur’s response was as stark as it was revelatory.

“Go home,” he said.

“Go home!”

MacArthur went on to clarify his response: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. End of discussion.”

“Go home!”

In his words from that Sun Valley platform, MacArthur successfully encapsulated what countless women who are called by God to ministry have heard from many within the Body of Christ:

No! Not you! You have obviously misheard God’s voice and misunderstood God’s call on your life. The Bible is clear: Women are not to have authority over men, and we refuse to believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new worldview in which gender-based hierarchy no longer makes sense. Turn away from this unauthorized sense of call. This ministry is not for you. Go home!

Having watched the video of MacArthur’s comments, even more troubling to me than the comments themselves is the response of the audience. It was a response of laughter, loud and energized—a dehumanizing “amen” that felt less like church and more like a shared derision pointed toward Beth Moore, a sister in Christ who was not even present at the conference.

MacArthur’s words and the audience’s response to them immediately brought to my mind the faces of many women whose leadership, preaching, and teaching has shaped and nurtured me throughout my pilgrimage. If the women preachers have to go home, then so do I, since I would not be who and what I am without those female clergypersons whose ministry has been instrumental in making me more authentically human and more holistically Christian.

My female colleagues in ministry certainly do not need my defense, nor do they need my expressions of righteous anger (especially since, as a white male, my “righteous anger” can sometimes sound like little more than patronizing rhetoric or perhaps even a superficial assuagement of a highly privileged guilt). Still, I long to speak to the hearts of my sisters and to the heart of the church.

But what might I say?

Perhaps I will simply reframe MacArthur’s language so that the vocabulary of “home” might find its proper redemption. Here goes:

Sisters in ministry, please, for the sake of the Gospel we love, do not even think about going home. Instead, in the rhythms of our fallen church’s broken ministry, BE at home!

Yes. Maybe that is what I feel most led to say. Sisters in ministry…

…BE at home!

Be at home in a church that has often been anything but hospitable to you but that desperately needs your leadership and vision.

Be at home in a deeper reading of Scripture that refuses to weaponize texts but instead interprets them through the hermeneutical lens of the Living Word.

Be at home in a post-Pentecost reality in which both sons and daughters are called and equipped to proclaim and lead.

Be at home amid your broken church’s ongoing repentance to which I add my voice and heart—a repentance in which I name my complicity (often manifested in my silence) in maintaining gender-based hierarchies and inequities.

Be at home in the renewed commitment being made by many of your male colleagues (including this one) to identify and stand against misogyny in all of its expressions.

Be at home in your divine calling that cannot be stifled and micromanaged by the machinery of patriarchy; be at home in a righteous anger that many of your brothers carry with you; be at home in a stubborn refusal to accommodate false stories and weaponized Scripture.

Male colleagues, be at home in utilizing your voice and agency in prophetic ways to dismantle patterns and practices that are unjust or distorted and to advocate for female voices that desperately need to be heard.

Female colleagues, be at home where you already are—in the heart of the church’s ministry.

Most of all, be at home in Jesus Christ, who is always a trustworthy dwelling place, even when the institutional church is not.

Be at home.

 

A Tweet That Cannot Be Minimized

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I do not feel driven to comment on every happening in our culture, nor am I burdened with a sense of self-importance that compels me to believe that my opinion is absolutely necessary, or even moderately significant.

Case in point, I have been particularly cautious about offering commentary related to our current President, since I know that we are living in a time when passionate convictions about his leadership (one way or the other) are deeply held and often aggressively (and dismissively) articulated.

Although I am not without personal convictions concerning the current political landscape, I have not vilified President Trump in my little corner of social media, nor have I lauded him. In fact, more than anything, I have prayed for him, that he would become the best version of himself as our President and that his heart would become ever more attentive both to the ideals that have always made our country great and the impulses that might make our country even better.

With all of that as a cognitive backdrop, allow me ask you to lay aside some significant things for just a moment:

First, briefly lay aside your personal feelings about Donald Trump’s presidency (since those personal feelings are often blinding).

Second, lay aside the current penchant for moral equivalence that often reduces accountability to the playground-politics of “Yeah, but HE or SHE started it!”

Third, lay aside the personalities and temperaments of all the individuals involved in the scandal that I am about to address (since those personalities and temperaments generate reactions within all of us that can distort our perception and discernment).

If you are able to engage in that work of laying things aside, then perhaps you can ponder this question with an analytical spirit:

Is it ever appropriate or acceptable for any President, irrespective of party, platform, or existing political conflicts, to speak these words to political opponents in any communicational mechanism (let alone something as dauntingly immediate as Twitter):

Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it’s done. These places need your help badly. You can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

Here is my answer to my own question:

No. It is never appropriate or acceptable. Not ever.

Some of my friends will be quick to present a series of what they perceive to be urgent “buts.”

“But what about the horrible things the some of the congresswomen have said about the President?!”

“But he’s only defending himself from Democrats and the ‘liberal media!'”

“But why aren’t you criticizing all of the hateful words that other people spew about the President?!”

I do not dismiss those “buts.” They fade, however, into the territory of irrelevance in light of what have become, for me, core convictions about the Office of President of the United States, a few of which are these:

  • That it is the moral responsibility of the President to elevate, not diminish, conversations, and that the proverbial “buck” related to this accountability must stop at the Office of the President;
  • That, insofar as it depends upon the President, s/he must cultivate a spirit of civility that honors even the voices of his/her harshest and most unfair critics in order to model the kind of leadership that rejects the demonization of opponents and seeks to engage the wide diversity of thought that has long characterized our country;
  • That a President, as Commander (and, I would add, Communicator) in Chief, must embrace the difficult but urgent responsibility of resisting defensiveness, vindictiveness, and dismissiveness in order to be able to cast a compelling vision that can be both supported and opposed with integrity and freedom.

I am speaking up about this most recent controversy because I believe the President’s recent tweet (and his continued emphasis of its message) to be reflective of a uniquely dangerous dynamic. While there is much disagreement about whether the tweet was overtly racist, I do not believe it can be debated that the phrase “go back…to the places from which you came,” no matter the context, communicates an irresponsible insensitivity to both the ugly history of such language and its profound impact upon people of color. The documented fact that various white supremacist and white nationalist groups have publicly celebrated the President’s tweet is an exclamation point on its dangerous overtones and undertones.

I am not attacking President Trump in these paragraphs, nor am I demonizing his supporters. I am, however, articulating my heartfelt concern about what I believe to be a sitting President’s harmful tweet, his subsequent defensiveness about it, and his refusal to acknowledge its inappropriateness and its harm. Yesterday, I probably would not have been inclined to publish this post, believing that perhaps the national energy around the tweet had already begun to dissipate. This morning, though, after watching heartbreaking videos of last night’s Trump-rally crowds shouting “Send her back!” in unison, I am led to believe that the impact of the tweet cannot be ignored, at least not by a nation that cares about its integrity.

At a time in our nation when conversations about controversial issues (including race) are as urgent and difficult as they ever have been, I expect my President to find ways to articulate hope (instead of exacerbating division); to energize the collective pursuit of justice (instead of corrupting discourse through a haphazard employment of social media); and to generate opportunities for connection (instead of attacking the patriotism of political opponents and encouraging them to leave the country).

I would want this kind of leadership from all who occupy an elected office in the government (including the congresswomen in question). It is the President, however, who must be held to a governing standard as the occupant of our nation’s highest office and the image-bearer of our country’s identity as a grand republic.

Through a Mirror Dimly

Through-a-glassy-darkly

(Artwork: “Through a Glass Darkly” by Carolyn Pyfrom)

As I ponder both the brokenness reflected by the hearing on Capitol Hill and the pain illuminated by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, I find myself inwardly occupied by a spiritual aridity that is difficult to describe. I am trusting in the Holy Spirit to take hold of my anguish (and a country’s anguish) and carry it to the heart of God as an articulate prayer.

Never has the phrase “now we see through a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) spoken to my heart with such penetrating truth. Those words call to mind either a narcissism (that prevents us from looking beyond our own reflection) or a blurriness (that prevents us from seeing ourselves and anyone else with the kind of clarity that true love demands). In either case, the hearing in Washington and its aftermath leave me feeling like I am surrounded by dim mirrors and diminished humanity.

I pray, but my words feel empty. Perhaps I am being called to a prayer that is not spoken but lived—the incarnation of an intercession that leads to a stubborn refusal to accommodate dehumanizing relationships and malicious patterns of behavior.

Think about what the air would be like if political posturing were to give way to a heartfelt pursuit of truth or, if the truth becomes elusive, a willingness to accommodate fractured relationships with integrity and compassion.

Think about how relationships would change if the pathological ethos of “boys will be boys” were to give way to an unwavering commitment to raising up (and becoming) men (and women) whose hearts will not tolerate any form of sexual violence or malicious exploitation.

Think about how the national climate would evolve if the American people, irrespective of the direction of their vote, were to experience a grander and more compelling vision of what our country can be, beyond the manipulation, beyond the competing allegiances, beyond the sickening controversies, beyond the partisan distortions.

Think about how the church’s ministry would intensify if its people were to embrace more comprehensively the church’s beautiful and often-countercultural narrative:

A narrative in which greatness is measured by a person’s (or a country’s) commitment to servanthood;

In which truth is told without malice or agenda;

In which women and men honor one another with mutual respect instead of denigrating one another with reciprocated contempt;

In which manipulative rhetoric yields to vulnerable hearts, patiently protected and tenderly pursued.

In that case, perhaps our dim mirrors would at least begin to reflect a brighter light.

Radical Hope for the Addicted

Breaking Free by Koa Kohler

(The painting above, created by Koa Kohler, is entitled “Breaking Free”)

During my first two years in Butler, Pennsylvania, the church that I serve had a connection with 34 people who died as a result of drug overdose. When I say that there was a connection, I mean that those 34 people were either members of our church, or attenders, or related to somebody who is part of our church.

Two years. 34 overdose deaths touching our congregational family.

At the end of my second year in Butler, I stood in a funeral home, officiating at the funeral service for one of these 34 people. Just before the service, the cousin of the young woman who had died walked up to me with tears streaming down her face and spoke to me words that I will never forget. “My cousin was more like a sister to me,” she said, “and I just need you to know that there was more to her life than her addiction. She was a beautiful person who just got caught up in something bad that she couldn’t control.” Following the service for the young woman, her mother pulled me aside. “Pastor,” she said, “I don’t know what the churches of this town can do, but they have to do something. No more of this! Churches have to open their doors to addicts and their families every single day so that people can know that drugs don’t have to win.”

Here is the bottom line. During my first two years in Butler, God had to begin a massive reconstruction project on my heart and my thought processes related to addiction. I came to Butler harboring secret ideas—ideas about addiction only happening in the lives of certain kinds of people who simply need to get it together and make better choices. I now believe something very different. I now believe that the widespread reality of addiction in our community and in our world is the greatest spiritual crisis of our generation, one that demands nothing less than a transformed way of looking at the world.

And a transformed way of looking at the world is precisely what that part of the Bible we call “the Beatitudes” represents. We call them Beatitudes because that word, “beatitude,” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “blessing.” But what is seriously unnerving about the Beatitudes is who Jesus describes as being blessed in his kingdom. It is certainly not the people common sense would identify.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever met anyone poorer in spirit than an addicted soul desperate for recovery.)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever encountered a deeper mourning than the mourning I have experienced in the lives of addicts and in the life of the family that surrounds the addict.)

There is a timeless relevance in the unsettling Word that Jesus offers to us through the Beatitudes. When we dare to apply the truth of the Beatitudes to our context, we find a word of radical hope even for addicted people and the families that surround them. In fact, when I quiet myself long enough to listen with my heart, here is how I am hearing the Beatitudes today:

“Blessed are those who are poor in the spirit of addiction. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn over addiction and the suffering it produces, for they shall be comforted.”

We always have to resist the temptation to make Scripture say something that it does not say. For example, when Jesus tells us that those who are poor in spirit and in a condition of mourning are “blessed,” he is not glorifying human suffering. He is not trying to get us to believe that it is a pleasant thing to suffer or to be devastated by addiction. But maybe Jesus’ point is that, in the world-altering grace of the Kingdom of God, addicted people can be spoken of as being uniquely blessed precisely because they know how desperate for deliverance they really are. The rest of us so often live in the illusion of being in control. Addicted people understand their need for salvation. The rest of us so often fall into the trap of distorted self-reliance, believing that we have no need for a savior. Addicted people are often more available to God than everyone else, precisely because they see (in a way that others cannot) that they are up against a struggle that demands a saving grace of supernatural proportions. That is why an addict can rightly be described as living in a condition of blessing—not because their addiction is good, but because their potential for recognizing the urgency and power of God’s deliverance is good.

If that is at all true, if you hear Jesus speaking a word of radical hope to the addict through the Beatitudes today, then I am inviting you to think differently with me about the reality of addiction. Here is how.

First, refuse to allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because here is the truth: Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls. Jesus never stops.

I heard a pastoral colleague recently (not from this community) lamenting hurtful words that she heard spoken in one of her church’s adult Sunday School classes. The hurtful words sounded something like this:

We need to stop giving these addicts Narcan because all they’re going to do is overdose again. It is a sinful waste of time and resources to keep people alive if they are just going to choose to die.

Can you imagine being the parent of an addict and hearing something like this from a Christ-following brother or sister? The pastor of that congregation put it this way:

“A statement like that indicates that our theology has not kept pace with our context. For me, this is a pro-life issue. I am a pro-life pastor who believes in a pro-life Jesus who never quits in the work of offering eternal life that he makes possible. And neither should we.”

Do not allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls.

Second, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in the struggle against addiction. Be sad about it. Be heartbroken. Be devastated at times when the situation calls for it. But refuse to plant spiritual roots in the spoiled soil of discouragement. Why? Because Jesus Christ will not rest until every addict experiences the blessing of a complete deliverance from an enslavement to addiction. For some, this deliverance might take a portion of eternity that we do not yet see. But rest assured, no addict lives outside the boundaries of Jesus’ love and the redemptive grace that he is so very desperate to offer to addicted souls. And if that is true, if Jesus is on the side of the addicted and committed to their deliverance, then HOPE is our “go-to,” not discouragement.  Therefore, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in this. Instead, commit yourself to participating in the saving work that Jesus is doing in the world by coming alongside the addicted in whatever way is appropriate. Become a part of that saving work.

Finally, refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction, because, here is the thing: Every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of addiction. You might not be addicted to a substance, but I can practically guarantee you that you are addicted to something. We all are.

We are addicted to hurtful ways of thinking that inspire us to kneel down at the altar of our own distorted opinions.

We are addicted to hatred that prevents us from loving, forgiving, and hoping.

We are addicted to patterns of behavior that are hurtful to ourselves and the people around us.

We are addicted to false stories that prevent us from embracing the truth about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

On Facebook, one never has to look far to find someone spouting a passionate opinion (or sharing a convenient meme) about a particular subject. Politics. Religion. Movies. Sports. Hollywood. Current events. When I stumble upon such conversations, it often sounds less like the gracious pursuit of truth. In fact, it often sounds more like a bunch of addicted people getting high on the drug of their own opinions and their forced certainty.

Here is my point: When we speak of addiction, we are not speaking about “those people.” We are speaking about all of us. Because an enslavement to some kind of an addiction is a reality for all of us. When we are in relationship with Jesus, he brings us into a lifelong recovery that manifests itself as a journey of living one day at a time without the particular distortions to which we have become addicted. In that regard, the recovering addict has much to teach the church about what it means to be authentically Christian.

So, I invite you to a refusal. Refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction. Because every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of it in one way or another, and, thanks be to God, Jesus is not giving up on any single one of us!

For the last year at Butler First United Methodist Church, we have held a Saturday evening worship experience that we call “The Bridge.” Everyone is invited to the Bridge, but we offer a particularly pointed invitation to those who struggle with the reality of addiction and their families.

Why do we call it “The Bridge”? Because a bridge is precisely what we believe Jesus to be. He is the bridge from isolation to community; from despair to hope; from addiction to recovery; from being lost to being found.

We never know who is going to show up at “The Bridge.” Nor do we know exactly what will happen in each week’s worship. To be completely confessional, we don’t really know what we are doing with this ministry. (Is it okay for a pastor to admit that?!) But, every single week at “The Bridge,” it feels like we wade into deep and important water.

Last Saturday night, a man stood up during prayer time at “The Bridge,” introduced himself as a recovering addict, and announced that, as of this week, he will be six months clean. He just wanted to thank Jesus Christ for his transformed life.

Following the service, this man came forward to pray with me. When I asked him how we should pray, this was his response: “Pray that more and more people in our community will come to understand what I have come to understand.”

I couldn’t help but ask the question. “And what is it have you come to understand, Thomas?”

“What I’ve come to understand,” he said, “is that addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives. It might be a chapter, or even a series of chapters. But it is never the end of the story.”

That is nothing less than the Gospel, offered by Jesus through the Beatitudes and spoken afresh by a recovering addict in downtown Butler. “Addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives.”

That Gospel is the foundation of the radical hope offered to us by Jesus Christ, in whose name we stand against addiction and in whose name I gratefully write.